Note to all studio execs: Forget all your star vehicles and action features filled with beautiful people with perfect hair and shiny white teeth. Precious is better than a thousand of them put together! Based on the novel Push by Sapphire (aka Ramona Lofton), but you wouldn’t know it was an adaptation, let alone fiction – it reads like a documentary at times.
This is a raw, gritty, harrowing and entirely credible slice of downbeat New York life, uncompromising in its motherf—ing language or cinema verité, filmed in situ in the streets of Harlem. It escapes only when the eponymous Claireece Precious Jones escapes into a fantasy world in which she is a star, beloved by everyone, feted and applauded.
The reality is very different: she is an obese, self-hating teenage Harlem girl, hated and abused in turn by a violent, bullying, selfish, wheedling mother who is more interested in her daughter getting a welfare cheque than making a positive contribution to anyone’s life. Precious fears the dark world around her and the motives of those who apparently want to help her, since those who should love her have only harmed her.
Precious (the name is used ironically) has been raped and abused from an early age by her father, and is consequently pregnant for the second time at 16 (great line: “Why are you pregnant again, Claireece?” “I had sex.”) Her mother has tolerated this abuse but is jealous that that attention should have gone to her. Precious is also, it later emerges, HIV positive thanks to his legacy.
Another example: Precious sits in a fried chicken restaurant and asks for a basket of fried chicken, for which she has no money. “Sides?” asks the waitress. “I don’t know yet,” replies Precious, “I’m still thinking about it. Trying to watch my figure.” Brilliant! Funny yet packed with pathos.
Precious can barely read or write yet loves the school in which feeble teachers stand no chance of teaching classes who have no interest whatever in learning. How do you succeed in this world? With great difficulty and a little help. Yet this is a film in which hope triumphs over appalling adversity, and a tear-jerker without the shameless need to manipulate audience emotions. This is not a depressing story of failure – it’s a story of a young girl gradually taking control over her own life and dealing with the problems that have kept her down. It’s streetwise and funny just as often as it is shocking.
It succeeds where very many more of the same ilk fail miserably by virtue of astonishing performances, so naturalistic you could never believe the actors were acting. Gabourey Sidibe achieves what many actors would kill to do – make you believe she IS her character, Precious Jones – though the actress herself is very different and not just dragged in off the street to be filmed. Despite the appalling hardships and suffering Precious endures, Sidibe’s face is etched with nobility, her pride and the lives of her kids keeps her going. We can all learn from that.
Mo’Nique justly won best supporting actress for her fine portrayal of the complex, self-centred unpredictable mother, Mary, out for whatever she can get and determined that her daughter will get her money from the welfare rather than try to learn anything at school.
But it would not have disgraced Sidibe to share the stand as best actress. My fear for Sidibe is that Hollywood regards her as a freak show and casts her as a figure of fun, though by the sound of it the actress herself is no fool and more than capable of handling roles from a position of strength. I wish her the best of British, though in truth I can’t imagine that she will be given the role of leading lady terribly often in a Hollywood machine dominated by love of pretty girls with size zero figures. The movie industry is all the worse for that.
The supporting cast, including Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz (but as contributors and certainly not to appease towering egos), acquit themselves well. Particular credit goes to Paula Patton for an undemonstrative, almost understated performance as the teacher, Blu Rain, who helps Precious to come out of her shell and write. The character is also gay, though this is also, rightly, understated. Small wonder also that Oprah Winfrey‘s name is among the credits as an executive producer.
Of course, Precious is also flawed, perhaps the result of director Lee Daniels trying too hard in some scenes to give a visceral edge where a much simpler approach would have done fine; ditto some of the class characters coming over as cardboard clichés. But I’d much sooner have this movie, warts and all, than the formulaic Hollywood vision of life. Would that more movies gave what Precious gives – honesty and integrity, qualities Hollywood believes can be faked and painted on by the yard. Not so. Here is the proof.